Dance for Young Audiences: a State of Affairs

A while ago, I was asked to paint a picture of the current developments in the field of dance for young audiences.

To which I thought ... What picture?

I do not know if there is one, nor am I certain there ought to be one.

There is, however, the following:

There is dance.

But when we say dance, what exactly are we referring to? Should we divide it into separate categories? Do we refer to dance for young audiences separately? Do we refer to dance for children, dance for toddlers, dance for babies, dance for fetuses, even? How many pictures does that leave us with?

There is an immense diversity in what is being created and performed. There is so much, and nothing is alike. How, in such a heterogeneous field, does one talk about a form of identity?

There is the word 'young'.
But who exactly does this term include? The audience? A new generation of artists? Does 'young' refer to the field as a whole, or to a carefully and newly developing subfield? In any case, dance for young audiences is not to be confused with a forum for dance by young artists. Quite the contrary: a young audience has every right to creations put together by experienced artists.

There is a vast waste land,
in which all artists mark their spot and create their settlement the way they see fit. These settlements are far removed, and there is very little coherence in terms of style or form.

There are no institutes, no set values, there are no established norms in this developing field.

There are fascinating artists working on the very down-to-earth motive of creating dance for a young audience of toddlers and young children, developing their very own idiom of dance in doing so. And there are those artists merely acting from their own internal necessity, without profiling themselves specifically as 'producers for young audiences', whose work merely seems to speak to young audiences equally.

There is, in short, no set standard, no specific trade one can learn to produce and perform for young audiences.

There is, however, a market for this kind of productions. When the motto becomes 'we aim to please', commercialization lurks. Speaking in terms of a 'target audience' entails a concern for the young audience on the one hand, but on the other hand, it involves the threat of mere obligingness, willingness to please, but nothing more.

There is unlimited freedom, as there is no established tradition in relation to which one can or should define one's position. The audience, in its turn, enjoys considerable freedom: their response remains uninfluenced by their views on the performing arts, by new tendencies or trends in the field. From this point of view, there is no one to please, no views or reactions to answer to. There are no obligations, not even that to exist.

There is, to resume, freedom, and there is a certain expectation that those who pave the way do so consciously, and with care. A young audience is no practice arena, it is the only future!

There is a certain dynamics, a developing engagement from the circuit of evening performances. I approve of Wim Vandekeybus' Radical Wrong beforehand, because it's coming from the right angle. Or take Jonathan Burrows. He created a performance in Hasselt by special request, because someone imagined there could be a certain potential in this kind of work. There seems to be something moving here.

There is a growing awareness that all it takes is a few tools to do away with any awkwardness surrounding ‘dance' and what it can be, an awareness that there is no limit to what we can accomplish, create and perform.

There is hybridization,
which is a given within theatre for young audiences, something natural, self-evident. But is this hybridization a goal worth pursuing in the field of dance? Is dance not all too often a mere illustration, an interlude? Will choreographers dare to let go of classical theatrical narrative when working for a young audience? Will dance get the recognition it deserves as a language in its own right?

There is dance, let us discuss that, regardless of age or audience.
Dance, not as in ‘one-step-two-step', but dance which, precisely because it avoids spoken language, can address longing, loving, death, fear,… all these major emotions we cannot seem to talk about without stammering, especially when addressing a child. ?That is where dance can make the difference. As a lexicon of the ineffable. As the art to communicate on a deeper, more intuitive and almost instinctive level, preceding language and impossible to pin down. As an art with the capability to astound.

There is, in my experience with young audiences, always a degree of wonder about what they have just witnessed. Mostly, it is a boundless not-knowing, now-knowing how to process what they have seen into language, or to name the kind of viewing experience they have gone through. And that is a good thing: it is not my opinion that art for children should come up to their expectations, I think we can serve them so much more by showing them something unfamiliar, something which will raise questions and put the world in a different perspective...
Art for children should be about creating a moment of not-knowing, some breathing space in between all the certainties they are brought up with. It gets better even, when the grown-ups do not seem to know the answers, sharing in their children's surprise, when there are questions, when there is the beauty of doubt, opening doors to philosophy and to mental wealth.
It must be wonderful to not-know together, when it is a warm kind of confusion, when one is being thrown off balance almost lovingly. This is the potential of dance. This mental challenge is not an attempt of the artist to pester the audience, nor is it a competition about who observes of understands ‘best'.

I plead in defense of reckless performances, performances which acknowledge dance as an exciting medium to express the layeredness of our thoughts and feelings, to blur the contours of our experience, to render our perceptions ever more infinite, and, ultimately, to make us more open, better people. I plead in defense of doubt, as well. For adults as well as for children, preferably, a shared doubt which dissolves the boundaries separating generations: a parent, a grandparent , a teacher, admitting: ‘I couldn't tell you myself, let's think about this together, what exactly did we see?', and in that conversation, or the ensuing silence, wisdom becomes of all ages, a two-way street, rather than a top-to-bottom transfer of knowledge. That is one. Dance is one. Acknowledging the power of expression of an articulating body.

And two. Two is: take the young audience seriously. Do not overindulge children. We have the chance to approach them and to make them discover a wealth that exceeds the pull of sheer commercialization. I hope that we can be producers who acknowledge a child as an individual, by surpassing the norm and giving the child the opportunity to exceed the common denominator. We have a wonderful tool to that end: dance. However, this tool demands the right kind of handling; it demands that we, producers, take dance seriously as a language, by showing only the best of the best, by departing from what children are familiar with through popular media (the worn-out dance routines, dance as a filler, as a mere backdrop). Let us broaden their frame of reference and their comprehension rather than stopping at a status quo. That makes two.

And three: May dance become self-evident to young audiences. May we focus entirely on the artistic development of an impressive repertoire. May we be exempt from justifying ourselves, again and again,
to the field of education: ‘that it's not that difficult'
to the circuit of evening performances: ‘that it's not that easy'
to subsidizing governments ‘that the performance really does come to life out of artistic necessity'
and to those same governments, but at different desks , ‘that yes, it can serve social-artistic, educational and pedagogical goals',
to dancers ‘that it is not inferior work', to financers 'that labour costs for an artist are always the same regardless of whether they perform for a young audience or for an adult one'
and, to the child, 'that it's been made out of love',
... that is a lot of talking, a lot of convincing.

Fortunately, we do have allies. There are presenters with a passion for dance and for young audiences. Good communicators who zoom in on dance for the evening circuit as well as on dance for young audiences, and who do so in depth, with interviews and panoramic overviews much clearer than the one I am presenting tonight. I am thinking of the work done by Dans in Limburg, for example. I would like to see more of that open-minded approach, as it will benefit all of us!
It is crucial, however, that we are not stopped short by a lack of fina
ncial means. If we want to grow in a qualitative respect, if we want to put dance for young audiences on the map, then this needs to be reflected in the priorities of policy-making officials. It will not do, in that case, to merely say that dance for young audiences is a worthwhile cause, but that ‘unfortunately, there are insufficient means'. If funding can just barely be obtained by project-based subsidies, how could we dream of long-term structures and continuity? Flanders does not have a single, structurally subsidized ‘dance company for young audiences', but it does have enormous potential and passion. And it could do with some encouragement.

I feel like we have barely begun doing the groundwork, and already our freedom to grow and build has been restricted (by the ghost of the economic crisis).

I have said that according to me, there does not need to be a separate field of dance for young audiences… Rather, I hope that dance for young audiences can function as a playground amidst the wealth the field of dance in Flanders has to offer. I hope there will not be too many partitions between the evening circuit on the one hand and young audiences on the other. I hope dance for youth and for children will obtain its own proper place (and a good name) within a bigger picture. I hope there can be a climate within which a child can remember its first ever dance performance as the start of a passion for life.

May this festival be the starting point for that passion.